Interview: Bert Coursey Talks About Homeland Security Standards

Will standards help responders choose the right equipment?

New Federal standards help responders evaluate new homeland response products ranging from gas mask respirators for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) conditions (left) to...
...portal monitors to detect radioactive materials entering the county at the borders and seaports to...
...personal protective ensembles for responders working near CBRN hazards to...
...emerging biometric technologies that identify individuals by their fingerprints or their photograph.

Responders are struggling now with what equipment to purchase,” says Bert Coursey, who manages the adoption and creation of standards for the Division of Science and Technology at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). “They're struggling with performance specifications, and with how they should react in the field based on the measurements they see in their detection equipment.”

Their plight is not surprising. Since 9/11, emergency responders have had to learn a new set of skills and master an entirely new box of tools. The problem now, says Coursey, is that there are no standards to ensure responders buy and correctly use the right equipment.

Take chemical warfare agent (CWA) detectors, for example. Most work, but their sensitivity varies with operating conditions. Some are sensitive to heat or cold, others to humidity or exhaust from a nearby rig. Setting two different types of units to alarm at a given concentration of a chemical may produce entirely different results.

This leaves field commanders up in the air. Do they trust their detectors? Are they using them correctly? What happens when two detectors disagree?

Chemical detectors are only the beginning. Will personal protective equipment block out CWAs? Will local radios communicate with state and federal equipment? How close must a responder stand to detect radioactivity reliably? Do facial identification systems work every time?

When a product is certified to a standard, it ensures a minimum level of functionality, adequacy, durability, sustainability and interoperability, says Coursey. Because standards define how a product should be used, they also simplify decision-making in the field.

Since joining DHS one year ago from the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST), where he led the interagency team to irradiate mail to kill anthrax, Coursey has been helping to put standards in place.

Under his leadership, DHS has adopted standards on personal protective ensembles (PPEs) and respirators, and helped create four more to cover radioactivity detectors (See Guidelines Adopted by DHS). This is only the start, says Coursey.

Homeland Response: What standards have you already adopted?

Coursey: On February 26, we announced the adoption of three National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health [NIOSH] and five National Fire Protection Association [NFPA] standards covering respirators and PPEs. The next day, we adopted four new standards on radiation detection developed by the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers [IEEE] and published by the American National Standards Institute [ANSI].

HR: Are these standards mandatory?

Coursey: DHS is not a regulatory agency. We're not setting standards in the sense that Food and Drug Administration [FDA] does for drugs or U.S. Department of Agriculture [USDA] for food or Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] for water. We're working with voluntary consensus standards groups who are creating standards that can be used for guidance in procurement actions.

HR: How do you decide what standards you need?

Coursey: We're developing an approach to standards in 11 areas. In each of those areas, we start by assembling eight to 10 security experts from within DHS. Then we reach out to other federal agencies and standards organizations.

In the case of PPEs, we reached out to the Office of Domestic Preparedness [ODP], the NIST group funded by the National Institute of Justice, and the Interagency Board. Our group also worked with Army Soldier and Biological Chemical Command [SBCCOM] and NIOSH to tap into the national experts who are testing and evaluating these products.

HR: Was your decision on which PPE standards to adopt clear cut?

Coursey: For this first set, it was. We wanted to get something out there as guidance for emergency responders without getting bogged down in the next generation of standards.

HR: NFPA is rewriting its 1994 PPE standard to change the type of materials and ensembles used for WMD. How are you going to handle it when it's issued?

Coursey: There's always room for improvements in protective clothing. We're always developing the next generation of better fitting gear and more interoperable communications within the suit. But we haven't addressed the continuous cycle of standards yet. We're looking for guidance from other agencies that deal with this, such as the Department of Defense [DOD] and FDA. They can't come out every day with the latest revision of any given standard, but clearly they to have to look at updating those standards on a continuous basis.

HR: What about radiological standards?

Coursey: We adopted a suite of four standards developed by IEEE and published by ANSI. Their coverage ranges from handheld pagers that alarm when you're in the presence of radiation through radiation portal monitors designed to detect radioactivity in air or sea cargo containers. We also adopted a standard for isotope identifiers that can distinguish between nuclear medicine and weapons material.

HR: How were these standards developed?

Coursey: In September 2002, while I was still at NIST, we organized a meeting at the National Institute of Justice and invited all the federal agencies and standards groups that were involved with radiation detectors, mainly for worker protection. Then we had a larger meeting and invited manufacturers and other stakeholders.

We found that while there were standards for some of the equipment we wanted to use, they were written mostly for nuclear power plants, health professionals and Department of Energy employees. So we set up four IEEE committees to write new specifications for homeland security uses. They worked on an extremely accelerated schedule and were able to get them approved and published within 15 months.

HR: Does that complete your work on radiological threats?

Coursey: This is just the start. We're working on standards for X-ray inspection of cargo containers. This will identify highdensity materials, such as lead containers, in which someone may be trying to hide something. We're also working on an active interrogation device that uses neutrons to

measure radioactivity at a greater distance than we do now. Finally, we're working on standards to monitor the air for radioactive materials either on a real-time or periodic basis.

HR: What other types of standards are next on your agenda?

Coursey: Biodetectors. We began working on standards shortly after I came on board one year ago. We're working on our first pilot project, which may at first seem limited but is really very ambitious.

HR: What does the project involve?

Coursey: We're looking at commercial hand-held assay tickets used to test for anthrax and comparing their results with laboratory reference methods. It will make a lot of people very happy to know under what conditions these things detect anthrax.

This sort of thing has been done before by individual labs on an ad hoc basis. Here, we've assembled a consensus group to determine how many samples to run, the type of samples and how to carry out the measurements. Everyone sits at the table and gets to agree how measurements will be done. In the summer timeframe, we will be able to put real specifications on these products.

HR: Did you approach this the same way you did the other standards?

Coursey: We put together a similar working group that includes the Centers for Disease Control, USDA, FDA, DOD, and Environmental Protection Agency, as well as manufacturers and responder groups. We've contracted with AOAC, a nonprofit analytical chemistry standards developer, to create the reference methods. Other agencies will then

have the option to adopt those standards based on results of study.

HR: So what makes this program ambitious?

Coursey: We've managed to get all these federal agencies working together with the private sector on a set of standards. I don't know that that's happened in the past. Also, the project is unique in terms of the number of labs and the magnitude of measurements involved. We have to develop both testing protocols and performance specifications. If we establish that this model works correctly, we can ask our expert group what projects should come next and start running them in parallel. That will speed things up considerably.

HR: What are some of your other priorities?

Coursey: We're working with FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] on standards for decontamination following a WMD attack. We're also looking at biometrics because there is an obvious need for standards for facial photograph identification. We're also gathering people interested in standards for chemical detection and learning about their issues.

HR: What about interoperable communications?

Coursey: There is a separate team, Project Safecom, run out of the DHS Science and Technology Directorate, that addresses the wireless communication needs of public safety organizations. Meanwhile, our group is working on standards for communications piece of PPEs. How people wearing protective suits talk with people on the outside is an important issue.

HR: What about standards for training?

Coursey: We're focusing instead on developing common curriculum elements that can be used by all the groups that now carry out training within DHS. As we develop equipment standards, we make it possible to create a common curriculum to show responders in the field how to use that equipment.

HR: Where do we go from here?

Coursey: We're pushing wherever we see gaps and vulnerabilities, especially in our ability to detect chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive weapons.

Guidelines Adopted by DHS
NIOSH Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Standard for Open-Circuit Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus. CBRN-resistant SCBAs.

NIOSH Standard for Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Full Facepiece Air Purifying Respirator. CBRN-resistant APRs.

NIOSH Standard for Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) Air-Purifying Escape Respirator and CBRN Self-Contained Escape Respirator. CBRN-resistant escape respirators. NFPA 1951, Standard on Protective Ensemble for USAR Operations. Protection during conventional technical rescue.

NFPA 1981, Standard on Open-Circuit Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus for Fire and Emergency Services. SCBA/SAR units for work in a dangerous atmosphere.

NFPA 1991, Standard on Vapor-Protective Ensembles for Hazardous Materials Emergencies. PPEs for use with hazardous chemicals, including chemical WMDs.

NFPA 1994, Standard on Protective Ensembles for Chemical/Biological Terrorism Incidents. PPEs for a range of chemical and biological WMDs.

NFPA 1999, Standard on Protective Clothing for Emergency Medical Operations. PPEs for emergency medical use.

ANSI N42.32, Performance Criteria for Alarming Personal Radiation Detectors for Homeland Security. Pocket-sized radiation alarms.

ANSI N42.33, Radiation Detection Instrumentation for Homeland Security. Portable detection of photon-emitting radioactive materials.

ANSI N42.34, Performance Criteria for Hand-Held Instruments for the Detection and Identification of Radionuclides. Identification of radionuclides.

ANSI N42.35, Evaluation and Performance of Radiation Detection Portal Monitors for Use in Homeland Security. Portal monitors for identification of radioactive materials that could be used in nuclear or dirty bombs.

DHS provides summaries and links for these standards at:

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